By Yvette Martyn
Workers making the rhinestones often found on high street jewellery, fashion and decorative items are at risk of developing silicosis, according to a new study published in Occupational Medicine Journal.
Researchers diagnosed 98 cases of silicosis between the years 2006-2012 in one rhinestone factory alone. The study which looked at a factory in Guangdong province, South China, is the first to report silicosis in crystal rhinestone manufacturing workers.
Rhinestones are man-made imitation gemstones with quartz sand being the main raw material. Commonplace on the high street and on screen, they are used to add a sparkle to items. The company responsible for making the costumes for Strictly Come Dancing estimated that 3.5 million rhinestones are used per series.
Workers in the rhinestone manufacturing industry are exposed to crystalline silica dust when cutting, grinding, polishing and buffing the artificial crystals. Inhaling crystalline silica dust can lead to silicosis.
Silicosis is a progressive lung disease, symptoms include shortness of breath, cough and fever. There is no cure for the condition and those diagnosed have a reduced life expectancy.
There is an increase in the number of people developing this preventable condition in China despite the condition being one of the oldest reported occupational diseases.
On average the workers who developed the condition were first exposure to silica dust at age 22 and were diagnosed with the condition aged 33. Most of the workers who developed the disease were responsible for drilling holes into rhinestones.
The study authors say it is essential that preventive measures are put into place to minimise silica dust exposure and therefore the risk of silicosis.
Study author Dr Wen said: “This is the first study to find a link between rhinestone manufacturing and silicosis. It is difficult to estimate how many rhinestone workers are affected by this condition throughout the world, but we have not been able to find any reported cases documented in medical literature.
“Rhinestones are frequently used in jewellery, clothing and decorative items. As consumers we should be concerned about the health of workers who manufacture these items as it’s likely they are exposed to silica dust.
“The rhinestones manufacturing industry is labour intensive, most of the activities within the factory involved in this study involve manual work. The first step in protecting these workers is to change the manufacturing processes to automatic methods, this will decrease the time that workers are exposed to silica dust. Appropriate ventilation should be installed, workers would benefit from using wet methods and they should be provided with personal respiratory protective equipment.
“Exposed workers should also undergo chest X-ray surveillance to assist in the early diagnosis of this condition.”
Professor Sir Anthony Newman Taylor, Professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Imperial College London said:
“Breathing in crystalline silica dust can lead to the development of silicosis with progressive scarring of the lungs. With increasing intensity and duration of exposure to silica, the risk of developing silicosis and of its severity increases. In its most severe form, the condition can lead to massive areas of scarring in the lungs, which severely compromised lung architecture and function. In such cases life expectation can be considerably shortened.
“Silica also inhibits the normal functioning of macrophages, the scavengers of the lungs, increasing the risk of tuberculosis in addition to silicosis.
“With sufficiently stringent control measures silicosis is a preventable disease.”